Wednesday, March 19, 2014

First-generation college students face hurdles but are able to make the grade

By public relations student writer Megan Valentine

Making the leap from high school to the college atmosphere is an intimidating process for even the most confident and prepared individuals. The huge amount of discipline required to succeed in an academic environment that places an emphasis on independent study, combined with new financial burdens and social situations, can make for a stressful transition.

Those with parents who earned a college degree have the empathy and support of another individual who has experienced the similar experiences, and they tend to be a bit more prepared for the new world they are encountering. First-generation students, on the other hand, typically have little direction when it comes time to make the big decision, making the challenges even more daunting.


On the Chillicothe Campus, where many learners are first-generation students, the goal is to position them for college success.

In an article published by “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” this group of students is referred to
Jamie Harmount sees first generation students as pioneers.
as pioneers. (Article:

“I [think] that the term "pioneer" [is] very appropriate. These first-generation college students are starting a future educational path for siblings and their own children. They are braving the unknown as would a pioneer in a strange land,” says early education faculty member Jamie Harmount, a first-generation student herself.


There are a variety of areas where these students can be at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Michael Lafreniere, mathematics and environmental engineering faculty member, has noticed that
Michael Lafreniere is focused on helping students succeed.
time allocation and creating study routines are often an issue, resulting in grades that do not accurately reflect the abilities of the students.

“I personally help students avoid this hard reality by incorporating a mastery approach that affords some a slow start and a chance to get their priorities with time in order. The key is early and frequent communication with me as their instructor. I, as well as all of our faculty members, want to help students succeed,” says Lafreniere.

“Some of the first generation students do not have family or social support. Their families wonder why students need time and energy to complete assignments and attend activities to promote
Barbara Mahaffey understands students' special demands.
experiential learning,” says associate professor and coordinator of the human services technology program Barbara Mahaffey of another major challenge that she has noted.

According to Harmount, the students are not the only ones who have trouble with this transition.

“I believe that parents of first-generation college students also face challenges. Some of the parents may not know how to help their child maneuver the higher educational pathway. Most parents will be encouraging but may not know how to support their child in adjusting to college.”

Understanding these dynamics, the Chillicothe Campus has programs in place to help these students, as well as any students who may be struggling, find their footing in college.


OU-C’s Student Advising Center allows faculty to alert them of any individuals who may be experiencing issues adjusting to their new academic settings. The Advising Center is then able to immediately reach out to the student and offer guidance or assistance. The Chillicothe Campus also incorporates discussions about understanding professional concerns and ethical behaviors in the lectures of certain courses and sometimes offers family activities so that others can see firsthand how the students are contributing to the community and gaining career-enhancing experiences.

Some of the campus faculty members’ efforts reach into the high schools and connect with students before they enter college.


Last year mathematics faculty member Dywayne Nicely took a more personal and proactive approach to aiding the transition for these students. In collaboration with Chillicothe High School, Nicely
Dywayne Nicely works with student preparedness.
spearheaded a project that focused on the correlation between reading comprehension and the ability to solve math word problems, which are very common on standardized tests such as the ACT and in higher-education settings.

“I’ve been teaching at the college level for 13 years now and there is a noticeable dislike for word problems in the mathematics courses, so a lot of our motivation stemmed from wanting to see what we could do to help students in that area,” said Nicely of the study. “There is a link that shows a correlation between reading comprehension skills or literacy level and how individuals perform on word problems, so we decided to explore that idea.”

With college expectations and readiness in mind, Nicely brought the approach of teaching math through reading to the classroom and aided the students in dissecting the problems sentence by sentence to better apply their analytical skills. Of the 62 participants, approximately 42 percent would be considered first-generation if they chose to enroll in college.

“At the end of the study we saw positive changes across the board in both literacy level and word problem success. The lower level students saw the greatest improvement, and their improvement was highly statistically significant,” said Nicely of the results. “After learning this new approach many of the students realized that word problems really weren’t as difficult as they had previously thought and became a lot more confident in their abilities.”

Although they encounter many trials that other students do not face, first-generation students tend to be extremely driven and successful once they have found their focus and adjusted to the college environment. Next week, we will take a look into the perspective of some of these individuals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice contributions by Drs. Harmount, Mahaffey, and Nicely!! Thank you for your service and committment!!